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"Angels With Scaly Wings" is a visual novel about dragons, which sounds promising at first. But it also tries to be a murder mystery, which doesn't lend itself well to the VN format. Even the clumsy point-and-click investigation segments of the "Phoenix Wright" games had more flexibility in the ability to look around instead of linearly being asked "what does Wound X mean". Since the gameplay isn't compelling, does the story capture my attention?

I like stories with strong world-building, so I figured a dragon world could be pretty interesting. Through the dimensional portal I saw... a world where the furniture and architecture look exactly normal for modern humans, the cafe sells bacon and eggs, the locals explicitly use "the English language", names are plausible human ones, the sheriff wears a star, there's casual mention of a list of phone numbers, the kitchen has Earth fruits, and so on. What really stood out was a background detail: a hallway with a sign for a womens' room. The standard Earth "woman" icon, although the artists had just enough energy to write "FEMALES" under it. I get the strong impression that the developers just bought a large pack of generic VN background images and made no effort to develop a unique or interesting world. So this is not world-building at all, and the characters have to do 100% of the job of making this setting and story seem interesting.

Do they? Eh, I guess a few could catch my attention with enough time (Anna, maybe?) though I'm actually not very interested in the romance element and my own character is barely defined. I can't actually have a freely structured conversation with any of them because this is a VN and I must go through a small set of choose-your-own-adventure branches at designated plot moments, so the friend-making part is kind of like a series of prison visits: "all right, you can have one scene with one of these 5 people and then it's back to the crime plot; pick one." So, the characters haven't managed to sell me on the game yet and the setting isn't doing its job.

In its defense, the game's human characters do briefly remark that it's a little bit odd how familiar the dragon world looks. (A little bit!?) I suspect that this ties in with the larger plot by the end, but I just haven't seen enough to make me want to find out.
  • Reading: Wicked River (Mississippi R. History)
I just finished playing "Sunless Sea" and tried a game made in Twine, and I beta-tested "The Pirate's Fate". They have me thinking about the design of different types of Interactive Fiction.

The first type of IF was based on "rooms", with a notion of creatures and objects in them. (Eg. "Zork".) That's a good structure if your focus is on moving between locations, but it's hard to work with if you want to have a lot of events happen there. That is, if you want something complex to happen in a certain place, you might have to build that event implicitly into the items/creatures with a rule like "if the player uses X item in Y room, this happens".

Then there's an event-focused system as in Twine games. There, a game is divided into "passages" that may or may not be linked to physical locations. In my Twine game "Dragon Fate", the focus is on moving around in a dungeon, but there are often multiple passages used to represent one physical room. A section with a booby-trapped door was especially hard to set up because the room could exist in three states, and the game had to track which one existed and send you to the right version. If I'd built that with a Zork-style game engine, the trap probably would've been easier to program.

What a Zork-style engine doesn't do well is time. There aren't really scenes or time periods, unless you treat them as like parallel universes that happen to have similar-looking room layouts. I noticed this with the Inform engine, too. Twine can handle time passing just by not letting you backtrack, and treating the passages as events rather than locations.

"Sunless Sea" uses a system closely related to their freeware game "Fallen London". The basic mechanic is that you collect event flags everywhere and they're explicitly shown, with pictures. Event flags are normally hidden trigger information like "you've beaten the dragon", which a game can check to do something like changing an NPC's dialog. This game makes everything into an event flag, possibly with a number, and indicates what you need to unlock certain choices. A certain event for instance requires "40x Supplies For the Passage, 0x Horizon Codex, 1+ Searing Enigma", where the first one is the product of a long quest chain, the second is the reward for completing this event, and the third is a sort of rare treasure. These flags can also be linked to a stat that's handled the same way, by some mechanic like "you can click this, but whether you're taken to a success or failure result depends on whether your Iron stat + 1d100 > X". That system brings chance into the outcome. Because the choices in any one situation are all visible, along with their requirements, there's some innate spoiler activity. On the other hand, the player is aware of what other opporunities exist, even if it's not clear what you have to do to earn a flag like "Unaccountably Peckish". (Don't.) These flags have to all be given unique names to link them to specific quests, as with the "Supplies For the Passage" which are unrelated to "Supplies For the Work" and "Supplies". "Morrowind" shows signs of similar naming oddities, because a phrase like "help with a certain problem" has to be unique to one quest if it's not to interfere with others.

Because this text-adventure system is built into a game where you're basically steering a boat around, the core of the interaction is that a menu of choices pops up whenever you reach a port, and there are triggers at sea based on randomness or factors like running out of food. As I recall, "Fallen London" works more by dealing you a random set of "cards" triggering events, where the possible card draws are based on what flags you currently have, then letting you pick the order to resolve them in.

This system also is odd in how it handles time. There are multiple time variables linked to specific places or events, and a master time variable whose purpose is to hand you a "Something Awaits You" flag every so often while sailing, causing special once-per-port-visit events to happen. For instance, visiting the Melting Isles lets you spend Something Awaits You either to dine with the locals or to forage for supplies, but then you have to leave and wait before you can do either again. Quest chains are handled, as in "The Elder Scrolls", by tracking a number from 0 to 100 to represent every possible status of the quest. But they're also tracked in the form of what other items/flags you possess, so for instance a Nephrite Ring represents that you've done X and can be used as a trigger for another event.

I beta-tested "The Pirate's Fate" and thought the design of that was interesting. Because it's a visual novel, the focus is on conversation scenes that happen in a scripted order. I auditioned to help with that by writing a segment for the game, but the writers correctly pointed out that what they wanted was very different from the mindset I brought to the table based on "Dragon Fate". DF is non-linear and uses stats and randomness, and focuses on being a long explorer. TPF is focused on character interaction, with physical location used almost entirely as a backdrop for those conversations. At no point, for instance, are you set free in a town to decide to dawdle and explore until you're ready to move on.

I noticed some hidden variables that are vestigial in the finished game. Eg. you can discuss a poker game by saying "I'm morally against gambling" versus "I'll teach you how to cheat" or another option. As I understand it, the game was going to track your replies to such things and trigger a key plot event based on a rule like "if Moralist > Pragmatist do X". But the designers decided to drop that idea and instead have the big plot twists be shaped entirely by your choices in the key scenes. That's good because the player has agency at that moment, but bad because there's less sense of making meaningful decisions at other times. I also felt like the heroine's personality became strongly scripted and out of the player's control once one or two key decisions were made, which again can be good or bad.

Having played all of these games I can't say that one system is best for all kinds of interactive stories. However, it's important to pick an engine that supports the kind of gameplay you want. In particular, what other gameplay is linked to the Interactive Fiction element: nothing outside it, or something simplistic like Sunless Sea's "sail around and try not to run out of supplies" system, or even a complex game like "Morrowind"? Do you want to show a complex location at one point in time, or a series of events where free movement and backtracking don't exist?

My own inclination is toward having movement between locations, with backtracking, relying on event flags to handle plot development. But I'd also want to see some actual gameplay outside of making choices in conversation, and to have that feel well integrated with the storytelling.
  • Reading: Wicked River (Mississippi R. History)
A difficult PC game with memorable storytelling and a lot of atmosphere, most of it dark and terrifying. Recommended for the excellent writing. That one south port isn't "the place with cheap fuel"; it's a rebel colony of Hell with an ever-changing market exempt from the laws of nature, and fond of "romantic literature".

FOR NEWCOMERS: I was frustrated by the cost of just maintaining my ship and supplies. The key to early game progression is to do tons of port reports for the London Admiralty, which gets you money and fuel, and to ask about intel-gathering missions which are worth substantially more. Especially if you convert two Strategic Information to Vital Intelligence; right-click on the info in your hold, though the V.I. has other effects. (You can also spend the Admiralty favor for cheap repairs and fuel.) And see the wiki. Good low-risk trade routes include coffee or Parabola-Linen from Iron Republic to London, or London mushroom wine north to Venderbight. Coffee also trades at 1:1 for linen in Irem. But... yeesh, it's tough to make money trading luxury goods across *this* sea, compared to the profits from historical spice trading!

The mid-game experience: After 17 hours and 2 dead captains, I have some working capital, a house, a few ship upgrades, and paid massive bribes for access to an exclusive market where I also have spies. I feel that there's little point in trading up my ship because fuel supplies are already a major problem, but might try it. I've turned to save-scumming to get past many "ha ha random doom" events. I was unpleasantly surprised to find that having a home lets me create certain special items but not to store them, so now I have weird widgets I can't use, cluttering my inventory forever because WE ARE CLAY. (Er, I have another item equipped to that slot.) I've started getting involved in my officers' plots. Winning my "famous explorer" ambition at this point is going to require tedious farming of Zee-Stories, Secrets and so on, so I might try for one of the secret victory conditions.

Overall, I've been having fun with it so far after figuring out how to get started. Worth the price!
  • Reading: Wicked River (Mississippi R. History)
In England, a man has been arrested for reporting on the existence of a trial, and worse, subjects of the Queen have been ordered not to report on the fact that he was arrested. Why? It has to do with the fact that the trial involves at least five dudes named Mohammed.

Really seems like one of the rare cases where Her Majesty ought to personally step in and say "this is stupid and it needs to stop", even if it's purely in a non-binding role. Or failing that, Brits really ought to start collecting more guns.
  • Reading: Need new books!
I tried out "Stellaris" on sale. These are some ignorant newcomer impressions from the first 93 minutes, as I figure out whether to keep the game. I can't readily give it a thumbs-up or -down.

I was overwhelmed by the variety of options and possible events. Incorporate aliens into an empire and decide whether to grant full citizenship or a dozen flavors of oppression or tolerance or death. Genetically engineer your race or decide to become a robot race. Develop psychic powers and make pacts with beings from beyond who might doom the galaxy. See individual population units' morals drift over time from exposure to events and other empires. That's very detailed compared to simply plopping down colonies, and has a ton of possible fun stuff to see! Even the research system involved assigning specific chief scientists who have their own talents and experience level. I was surprised that there was only one FTL option, and learned from the wiki that the others were removed.

I started out with the oligarchic Raltek Confederacy, materialist space foxes who really like birds. After an hour and a half I was surprised that I hadn't actually colonized a second planet yet; I'd just built a starbase to claim a second system and was setting up some mining stations. I was obviously not going to have the resources for a colony ship for a year or more, and the game was playing out over individual days. Also, the tutorial had me build a new farm on the homeworld, but since my race bred slowly, it was going to be months before they even fully staffed the existing on-planet facilities, let alone the new one, let alone a colony ship. So, I was puzzled by the time scale, making micromanagement decisions like whether to investigate an anomaly but knowing that the "expand" part of this game was going to be really slow.

Then there was the first battle. The tutorial system kept making dramatic things happen and not pausing the game half the time. I had a window showing me the fleets' stats and an overall "you're winning" meter, but there was obviously a lot of work put into having 3D ships flying around in circles shooting energy rays. What it made me think of was a silly old Buck Rogers show in which a space battle was shown as two model ships circling each other while a scientist kept saying "Get above him!" This version looked cool, but it didn't help me understand what was happening or what I should do.

Doing any of the quests that were piling up, like investigating anomalies or finding the cult bases, was obviously going to take months, during which I was going to be waiting for my minerals to hit 90 so I could build another mine or something. Later, I was presumably going to get overwhelmed with trying to manage dozens of star systems with multiple planets. So, overall, this game looks cool and obviously has a lot of detail and things to see, but I feel like I'm never going to see 90% of it because I'll be too busy managing population units and mining stations to pay any attention to ship design and so on.
  • Reading: Need new books!
I played "Century: Spice Road" last weekend. The idea is that you're trading in four flavors of spices, trying to buy... markets or something, which are the victory-point cards. The spices come in four bowls and are four-colored cubes of increasing implied value. Buying the markets requires specific color combos like "3 brown, 2 red". To get those you use cards from your hand. You start with just two: "take 2 yellow" and "upgrade any 2 cubes".

This isn't a standard deck-builder, because you can only play each card once, then have to take a turn to pick up all the cards you've played to the table. Also you don't buy new cube-manipulating cards; you just take them from an assembly line where the first in line is free, but taking the 2nd requires putting a cube on the first, taking the 3rd requires putting a cube on the 1st and 2nd, and so on. So you get a bunch of color-shifting, cube-swapping cards and try to manipulate your way up to the right color combos to get VPs.

I won this one because I happened to get a card that let me trade 5 yellow for the highest value, brown, then kind of work my way down to whatever I needed. The other players kept buying the higher-numbered trade cards, giving me an easy supply of yellow. Overall I had a good time with it and would play it again occasionally. It's more interesting than "Splendor" because you're not just collecting specific numbers of colors, but trading up and down the color scale to get what you need.

It's an interesting example of re-theming a game, too. It got re-released recently as "Century: Golem Edition", which apparently just changes the spice cubes to crystals that you use to build golems. I like the golem art, but the fact that it can be so easily swapped out to a different theme tells me that the theme itself is kind of weak. I mean, if you make a spaceship building game that can just as easily represent growing vegetables, then space construction isn't really integrated into your gameplay. In Century's case, why golems? Just because golems are neat, even though they have no purpose but VPs.

I had a similar problem with "Seven Wonders", in which you're building a civilization but then never actually do anything with it. The fact that you have X technology means nothing other than that you can get card Y for free later.
  • Reading: Need new books!

My novel "Liberation Game" is now available on Amazon! The e-book is linked above, and the print edition should be out later today.

Revolution On the Edge of Reality

Robin runs a plantation in war-torn Central America. Lumina is an AI created inside the video game "Thousand Tales". When corruption and violence threaten Robin's town, he teams up with Lumina and the digital goddess who created her to start building a new country.

Lumina's idyllic virtual world might become a force for immortality and freedom, but only if Robin helps build a whole society around it... and if they both risk their lives to make that happen.

Part of the emerging "GameLit" genre, combining science fiction with the world of gaming. This volume's focus is on people using the virtual world to create and defend a culture that crosses dimensions. No previous knowledge of the setting is expected; dive in here!
  • Reading: Need new books!
I intend to publish "Liberation Game" soon and write a silly LitRPG story. However, I want another project to try in the meantime. Something game related. I'm interested either in producing a pen-and-paper game book in the style of "Four Against Darkness" (on Amazon), or an actual game made in Unity. Ideas:
-Revisit the conversation-focused game and find some way to make it *fun*. Clicking on topics to collect facts wasn't good enough to be a core mechanic. I could introduce a battle system and a part about tense negotiation with wasteland gangs, but unless the "persuading and learning from people" part is interesting, there's little point.
-Kingdom-building game (pen-and-paper). Dungeon-crawling plus creating a little fortress using dice.
-Magical girl game, inspired by various CYOA things and the freeware RPG "Princess: the Hopeful". Pen-and-paper. Design an adventure combining battles against evil with training, keeping your spirits up, and improving your home area. Not necessarily actual anime magical girls; just upbeat fantasy with a theme of "making sure the mall doesn't get blown up because I like that place" rather than "loot another abandoned ruin".
-Wargame, in the style of "Mount & Blade" and my own old side-view army battle system (which imitated "Dragon Force"). Move around a world map fighting bad guys, capturing territory, and (importantly) using your powers to change the setting by building walls and bridges, fortifying towns, and building wizard academies and terraformer enchantments. You're not just conquering the map; you're turning a terrible zero-sum, war-torn feudal land into a nice place.
-Racing board game (in Unity). Otter tribesmen sail on a grid. You roll die that say eg. "forward" or "left turn", then use powers to manipulate the dice, then use the dice to advance. Ideally with a mechanism in between days of the race, to earn special powers for the next round. (Eg. you do the drunken beach party, or the magic ritual, or upgrade your boat).

What do you think? Ideally I'd make something that is wildly commercially successful independently from my actual writing, but failing that, I'd like to have a complete game of some sort that gives me some credibility as a game maker. As opposed to just another little demo/unfinished project.
  • Reading: Liberation Game, Draft 3
boardgamegeek.com/boardgame/19…
This normally solo, pen-and-paper dungeon crawl game caught my attention while I was browsing board games. It's selling very well on Amazon in print form and has a PDF version on the makers' home page, so I thought I'd check it out.

I created a basic adventuring party of fighter, cleric, wizard and rogue, avoiding the few other options like elf and halfling. On graph paper I made a small 15x10 grid; the standard dungeon is 15x24. I rolled dice combinations to generate rooms from a chart, plugging them into the grid and fudging them a little to make them fit. With each new room the party reached I rolled for its contents on one chart, then sometimes on a chart for a special feature like a healing fountain or on a monster table to determine the type and then the specific monster type and then the number of monsters. First was an ambush by six zombies, which were actually pretty easy because they and other minion types have 1 HP each and you can kill several; also this was in a hallway that limited who could attack. Then I found a room with a medusa in it (Boss class) that turned the entire party to stone instantly due to bad die rolls. Game over.

I created an identical second party and sent them into the same layout. They killed the medusa, but the cleric got stoned and he was the only one with the blessing spell to undo that. I followed the rules for noisily dragging him out of the dungeon and said that I was just dropping the guy off at the nearest church for them to deal with, and hiring a replacement cleric. So, Take 3 took me through the rest of this little dungeon. The heroes found a secret exit, got spooked by a ghost, coughed on a gas trap, hurt themselves finding a spell scroll in a puzzle box, and found a mysterious clue that can be cashed in for 1/3 of a special bonus. Then they fought a small dragon, the final boss, that for some reason was hanging around in a hallway. The dragon managed to escape after the party got in some lucky hits, and after some trouble with vampire toads that the cleric smashed and the wizard fireballed, they escaped with a valuable gem and some magic items. Three party members gained a level, making their next trip easier.

So how was it? I got a bit of a story out of it, so that's good. There was a ton of flipping back and forth between tables, though the PDF package I bought included some condensed tables in an easy-print format. I felt that the dungeon content was pretty bland because the focus was on the exact tile placement even though party members don't occupy specific squares; the only distinction between room types is a "room" versus a tight hallway. I didn't use the reaction rules that could hypothetically have let certain monsters offer me a quest or accept a bribe, because I didn't have much gold and waiting for a reaction meant forfeiting my first attack against monsters that probably would have attacked anyway. (Quests are things like "capture X creature alive" or "bring me gold".) My characters have no game-relevant personality beyond class and choice of weapon type. Overall it's kind of interesting, but it has me imagining how I could do something similar that better suits my own interests.

Sample map: 4 Vs Darkness - Dungeon Map by KSchnee
  • Playing: Four Against Darkness
I'm trying out "Dog and Pony Game". dogandponygame.equestriart.net…
It's got network play but I'm trying a 5-player game vs. CPU.
I'm moving very slowly around in a cave, digging one square open per turn, and randomly finding random items. Some of these let me dig an extra square or are TREASURE. Very rarely there is a gem, and I'm basically wandering until somebody finds the last two of the four.
Sometimes there's a skeleton called MONSTER that attacks, one combat round per turn. Combat consists of picking HIGH, MID, or LOW, which is exactly the same as rock-paper-scissors and is a meaningless choice since there's no reason to pick one option over another. The CUTLASS makes one successful attack do more damage and the BUCKLER cancels damage once. I can use MORTAR to un-dig a boundary between tiles, which blocks enemies.
The repetitive 8-bit music is hurting my ears. The nice thing about it is that a new instrument kicks in for each gem that's been found.
The twist to the gameplay is that each player is on the DOG or PONY team -- they may as well be DEMOCRAT and PINEAPPLE for all it matters -- and you don't know who's who unless you use a LANTERN on them, which can also kill a MONSTER. So that's a hidden-loyalty theme seen in games like "Werewolf" and "Shadow Hunters".
Finally, someone found the last gem randomly and the team scores were tallied, showing that the DOG team beat my PONY team.
I appreciate the effort that went into this, but it's just not fun. My main decision-making is either random (MID) or pointless plodding in the direction of the next unexplored tile. Because my item carrying capacity is very large, there's no reason not to grab every item, and you basically should burn all items ASAP. The low-quality pixel art is tolerable but the music is actively unpleasant. The theme is completely unused and you'd never guess the reason it's DOGs and PONYs unless you knew MLP. The extreme randomness prevents there from being much strategy. So, my recommendation is a NO.
  • Reading: On To the Asteroid
As usual I've been writing SF, where a few decades in the future, brain uploading exists. But it's still expensive. At one of the towns where the service is being offered to rich travelers, a popular old man is dying and he requests uploading. The uploading clinic and its ruling AI say "hey man, we'd love to help him, but we haven't got the resources to do a lot of charity cases".
And the locals say, "Okay, but how about saving this guy in particular?"
The AI says, "You know perfectly well that if I say yes to this case, we'll get a ton of other cases like photogenic sick children. And I can't help them all without going broke, so calling me a heartless monster is stupid."
The people say, "How about, like, you agree to take a specific number of charity cases per year?"
AI says: "I call BS. Within a week we'll get literal busloads coming here. Best I can do is a rare, rare case and then lobbying your government to give me money for more."

So this is an interesting, messy dispute with no clear right answer for the characters. There's also a religious component the way I've set it up: a Mormon Church agency that's taking the position that uploaders count as people, but are obligated to continue serving the community. Meanwhile I say the Catholic Church is against it and is still in "liberation theology" mode. The canon I've established in other books say that even by 2040 (this is '38) the procedure is much cheaper but still too expensive for there to be large-scale, regular charity operations.

Come to think of it, the situation is also like "The Pirates of Penzance" (where the pirates find that after showing mercy to an orphan, every ship they attack claims to be crewed entirely by orphans) or what's happening on the US border right now, except that the heroes are defending a single point where no one can get "in" without the staff's active cooperation.

Ooh, I've got a disturbing idea for part of what happens, involving cult-like behavior... It's interesting, though, that there's no apparent way for the heroes to find a complete, just solution to this problem without going full Mary Sue.
  • Reading: On To the Asteroid

I went to see "Ready Player One" tonight with my father. He walked out, bored, and I followed not long after. Spoilers for most of the movie follow.

I found the book to be interesting but deeply flawed from a storytelling perspective because, to skip the long rant, the setting is dead and static and nobody has any creativity or ambition whatsoever but to obsess over old pop culture. In movie format it was fun to see this story brought to life with snazzy CG interspersed with live-action scenes. Compared to the book, it looks like there was an attempt to tie the quest in somewhat with game creator Halliday's past as a reclusive nerd, so that symbolically it's a quest to understand how unhappy the man was in his personal life and to "connect to the real world". I award it points for trying that and for all the pretty colors.

But... it doesn't actually succeed. There's an attempt to show nostalgia moving on a bit from the 1980s, eg. with several references to the 2016 game "Overwatch". (The story is set in 2045.) If anything that kinda weakens the book's theme of extreme stasis without actually showing people creating something new. What's this "connect to the real world" concept though? The quests of take place entirely within the game, and they're completely focused on the creator's personal life so as to continue encouraging people to obsess over a dead man. The hero wins by hanging on the man's every word as recorded in his "journal", which in the movie is now a CG library with obsessively detailed dioramas. The first phase of the quest has been replaced with a car-racing sequence that only makes sense as Halliday wanting to find an heir based not on virtue or work ethic, but on the ability to seize on one line of one conversation nobody else has noticed! At least it's not like the book, where what Halliday really wanted was an heir who's really, stupidly good at 1980s video games.

I also fault the movie for starting off with something like 15 minutes of narration. No, you don't have to do _in media res_ all the time, but this was silly.

The dystopian real world is interesting, but Evil Corporation IOI comes off as exactly that. It also doesn't make sense that all we see of their enslaved workers seems to be people forced to play this video game, not doing anything in the real world. The nickname "Sixers" is also lost on the movie audience; it was a little weird anyhow what with everybody prominently displaying what looks like binary for "5". I liked seeing a nod to the idea that game avatars don't have to be ordinary humanoids; there are some other critters running around. The movie, like the book, completely glosses over the existence of AI technology, and it ditches the notion of it being used for education except to make some brief mentions of there being an in-game school zone called Ludus. So, we end up not seeing people living in the game world for anything but gaming.

Halliday is still presented as a god. The hero kneels before his wizard avatar in awe. The movie makes the point about the real world being so terrible that nobody wants to live in it, which is provocative, but again I fault this story for having a hero who doesn't care.

Overall, it lost my interest despite the pretty flashing lights. Despite the attempt to write a deeper plot than the original book (a surprising thing for Hollywood), it still has the same flaws as the book. I left at the part where Artemis had been captured by the evil corp.

For comparison: I take pride in my own game-themed setting partly because the characters try to live in both worlds and make a meaningful connection between the two. It also presents a more complex setting because there are other things going on than the One Big Game (other AIs, seasteading, secession, fusion, spaceflight) and people have ambitions that are mostly orthogonal to how well the One Big AI does. It's also more upbeat while still having more specific problems than "the real world is a mess", and more adventurous in the choice of game avatars.

  • Reading: Astoria (a history of a Pacific Northwest colony)
www.technologyreview.com/s/610…
I only found out about this through that article. A friend showed me that and I said, "This looks like a follow-up to that Small Mammal Brain Preservation prize, but those guys have been suspiciously quiet about the quality of the pig brain they were going to do."
Then I saw this breaking news: www.brainpreservation.org/larg…
Excellent. Judging from available info, the process preserves a brain in enough detail to get scans at the level of detail needed to view individual synapses. I don't know if that's good enough to judge even finer details like whether one synapse is excitatory or what type of neurotransmitter it uses, but it's definitely encouraging news. It's comparable to what's being done with this effort to do a high-res scan of a 1 mm cube of a rat brain: www.technologyreview.com/s/609…
  • Playing: Into the Breach
HQ: "I've got a plan. Arty, I need you to shoot --"
Arty: "I like this already."
HQ: "-- the open field next to that city."
Arty: "What."
HQ: "Trust me. It'll knock the giant hornet away so it misses its attack, and set Leeroy up to punch the scorpion into that mountain."
Leeroy: "This is a good plan. But what about that other alien bug and the marker that says "AIRSTRIKE INCOMING"?
HQ: "..."
Leeroy: "Didn't you claim to have some kinda BS magic undo button?"
HQ: "That was not my exact wording, but yes. We already used it up for this battle."
Arty: "I don't remember that."
HQ: "Let's just say you should be glad to be here not-remembering what just didn't happen."
Leeroy: "City's doomed then? I mean, we can see people cheering us on from the windows."
HQ: "We have... more than one of those."
Tankred: "Do I get to shoot the dam? Please?"
HQ: "No, but you get to shoot the monster spider to knock it sideways so that *it* hits the dam. Now go!"
  • Playing: Into the Breach
www.amazon.com/dp/B07B29CYLX
My new book is finally out! This one is about Stan, a poor young man who encounters the game world of Thousand Tales and finds the growth and opportunity he's never had before. When the game's AI begins offering advice and asking for favors, Stan has the chance to make his real life into an adventure, if he can earn the greatest prize of all: control of his own life.
  • Reading: FiM Fanfic: "To Perytonia"
  • Playing: The Pirate's Fate
Tonight I tried a card game called "Quest: Awakening of Meliora". ( boardgamegeek.com/boardgame/14… ) It's meant as single-player, though it also has a co-op mode. You are one of four heroes trying to do something glorious before running out of HP or encounter cards. There's a fan of 1-3-5-7 encounters face-down, with three distinct backs for the Meltwood, Shadow Caves and Crystal Something regions. You play the 1, then veer off to one encounter each of the next rows, then start over once you reach the top, so you have some control over which type of region to go to next.

Each round, you turn over an Event card, then the Encounter. The events are a mix of location-themed cards, generic ones, and five unique ones for your character. For instance I played as a Tarzan-like guy who had been magically merged with his T-rex pet, giving him the power to shapeshift. The events for him were things like "Growing Pains: take 1 damage" and "Far From Home: if you haven't gained X or Y yet, lose a boon." So, themed for the character. Some events I saw were "Single-Track Mind" (hindered me somewhat) and "Lore Journal" (a way to temporarily boost Intellect). The encounters play out with a dice system. You roll 5d6 and the dice get "locked in" to certain markings on the encounter or your card. Eg. a killer bat could be beaten with 2 Combat power, but gained 1 Combat each time a 1 appeared, and locked those dice in so they were unavailable to empower hero cards.

To win you have to win a quest. Two characters have a personal quest: basically "find and overcome all your dark and mysterious past cards", and "reach level 7". Otherwise you can find and complete quests like "beat a bunch of crystal encounters either all violently or all non-violently", or "actually beat that shadow dragon violently when it's super difficult to beat that way". Whether you beat each encounter is very random, a matter of whether it captures all your dice before you get enough bonuses to defeat it, and the difficulty automatically ramps up by raising the enemies' stats for each complete fan of cards. Come to think of it there's very little meaningful decision-making, which strikes me as a deal-breaker, but the concept of encountering various adventures in specific terrains with a bit of backstory and having character themes is a good one. The idea of a single-player option also interests me.
  • Reading: Wonderland: How Play Made the Modern World
Today I drove east across Florida to watch the Falcon Heavy launch from the beach near Cocoa, FL. That was a looooong drive on the way back; a horde of people all went there to watch, too.

Tons of people lined the road at every bridge. People filled the beach, all staring in one direction. At 3:45 Eastern I didn't see the exact liftoff, since I was looking straight north and the launch was actually a bit off to the west behind a building. But I saw it a few seconds after liftoff. Arced off to the east and vanished, with the first-stage separation not clearly visible. Then a few minutes later two brief flashes of fire appeared in the sky, and then twin trails of fire low on the north horizon as the first stages landed. There was a near-simultaneous double landing, with a BOOM BABOOM! hitting the beach twice, seconds after the landing. The crowd hooted and applauded.

I'm told that the center first stage crashed at sea, but still, the side boosters (which had themselves each flown once) landed successfully, and the silly payload is on its way. I'd seen a few of the last space shuttle launches from the beaches near Indiatlantic, FL, but this was something new, and I'm glad to have gotten to see this bit of space history in person.
www.amazon.com/dp/B079KZVZKS/
The revised and expanded edition of "Fairwind's Fortune" is now out on Amazon for 99 cents!

In 2038, Gail plays "Thousand Tales", a game run by a watchful AI. In there, she's exploring an endless sea to gain aquatic powers and master the rare skill of combat origami. In the real world she helps run an ice cream company and is starting to see robots sneaking around the place, because the AI's plans go beyond keeping players entertained.

Her real and fantasy lives collide one night when she has a bout of extremely good luck, and the chance to have her brain permanently relocated to the game's world. Is digital heaven too good an offer to pass up?
  • Reading: Princess Holy Aura
  • Playing: Subnautica (finally 1.0)
I've just finished the PC game "Subnautica" and enjoyed it. (Enough that I wrote TF fanfiction about it!) It's a single-player survival/crafting game in which you explore an ocean planet, trying to find a way off of it. The feel of it is very different from the also-great "The Long Dark", because in TLD resources are scarce and non-regenerating, forcing you to move around just to stave off freezing and starving. In SN, bare survival in the starting area is pretty easy, and it feels like an accomplishment when you can set up the tools to have a secure, reliable source of food and water. The genius of it is that you're then self-motivated to go explore farther and deeper, to find new resources and information. When you find yourself lost in a dark underwater cave with 30 seconds of oxygen left, it's your own fault. The game gives you the tools to put yourself into scary situations and a reason to do it. The sense of progression comes not from raising arbitrary numbers as in "Terraria", but (mostly) from getting new tools and structures that do new, tangible things without arbitrary barriers like "only a Material X pick can break Material Y". Having bases of your own design in increasingly deadly places feels like an achievement, as does learning more about the world.

What's to criticize? Late in the game I found myself shuttling between distant bases, which became tedious even with my mini-sub, because I needed to rifle through all my cabinets for some obscure resource or to park my vehicles somewhere or build another beacon. For a game about exploration, it's sorely lacking an actual in-game map, so I often cheated a bit by activating a debug window (F1) to see my coordinates, and used a wiki to locate some wrecks. I didn't care about the "cuddlefish" pet. The grand Cyclops submarine wasn't all that useful for being a mobile base and I saw no use in building upgrades for it, nor in building torpedos. (From what I understand, the devs were influenced by a school shooting and chose to make their game nearly weapon-free because of it.) Finally, there could've been more done with furnishing bases. There's no mechanical reason to make more than a Spartan facility, but I imagine having a survival game where your ability to get clean and relaxed and entertained is important. This idea feels like a missed opportunity.

When I got to the end of Subnautica and it was time to go, I did a high dive for one last swim, for checking out my base, for ramming a Reaper on purpose, for nibbling on fresh kelp, and loading up my escape rocket with gold and diamonds, food and water, just for roleplaying's sake. I was a little sorry to go!
  • Reading: Princess Holy Aura
  • Playing: Subnautica (finally 1.0)
I go to movies to be entertained, which generally means trying to see things I can enjoy. "Hostiles" is a movie for people who would rather be made miserable. It's a Western movie that manages to focus 100% on guilt, regret, Indian savagery, US Army savagery, dead children, murder, rape, kidnapping, mutilation, arson, and trauma. I left right after the bit where the murderer/deserter condemned to be hanged is wrestling in the darkness and rain and mud in a desperate attempt to shoot the soldier consumed with guilt over taking human lives. "Don't worry," says the soldier afterwards, bleeding to death in the rainy and miserable night. "That other guy will bleed out within a day." And that was a change-up for the movie, because I thought that scene was about the other soldier haunted by all the civilians he's killed deciding to trudge off into the rain to die alone after begging the cancer-infected dying Indian chief (himself known for his long history of brutality) to accept his atonement for the unforgiveable crimes of the white man. Oh, and I left out the bit with the woman screaming in anguish as she claws at the hard, cold dirt in a futile attempt to bury her butchered family; that part goes on at some length.

Again, I usually try to read or watch stories for entertainment, if not to be made happy then to at least have some sense of satisfaction. On the plus side, I can compare this movie to "Cloverfield", which does a good job of being a one-note wail of anguish and despair.
  • Reading: Princess Holy Aura
  • Playing: Subnautica (finally 1.0)